The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 21


Life settled into a comfortable pattern. As October rolled around, Siobhan's twenty-fourth birthday came with it. For the next month, she and her brother would be the same age, and poor Shana would feel even more like the baby of the lot until her own December birthday. Siobhan had no desire for a big party, especially because she wanted her introverted loved ones to be happy, so instead, she had one small party with Octavia, her brother, her sister, and her lover, and then she had another with all of the Dual Cultivators.

Even Clara attended, and she joined Juliet to take over all cooking duties. The party itself really felt more like a casual get-together that involved cake, and that suited everyone fine. They played some games, and watched film theatricals. Siobhan considered it a special gift to get extra cuddling from Shana. Oh, Shana could be cuddly, to be sure, but Siobhan tried really hard not to use up all of her introvert's ability to recharge others. It was only fair to share, especially with Rocky.

Huddled together in a large bean bag and swathed in blankets so only their faces could be seen, the two sisters critically studied the newest film theatrical that they had put on. It featured the new actor Byron Rancul, whose popularity seemed to just keep climbing as time passed. Not only did he possess his Virtuoso voice, but he also had genuine acting skill, and anyone who worked with him said he was likeable and easy to get along with. The fact that he had a very handsome face with almond-shaped eyes just helped the entire package. At just under twenty-five, he had a maturity not expected from someone not quite an adult. But then, rumor said he had been given independence on the young side.

"I like his coloring too," Siobhan told Shana. "Hazel eyes and hair are so fun because they all but change color from green to brown to gray depending on the light they're in. Always a shame when they stick him in a wig."

"Well, with hair to his hips, unless he wants to always be cast as the romantic male lead, he needs to change his looks now and then." Conspiratorially, Shana said, "Remember me saying I might get a new actor naked in front of the camera? This stays between us, but it might be Byron. Lux opened that new and improved theatrical studio to produce both film and stage shows, right? Well, he's considering coming to Lux to record here, and the owner of the studio came to university to find filmers and photographers, and I got tapped for the second. So . . . maybe!"

"That would be so fun if you got to work with an actor! He models, too, right?" Siobhan giggled. "We'll get Sherry to make him some clothes to show off. Oh!" She whispered into Shana's ear, "Wait until you see what she made me for a birthday gift. It's almost as much for Edgar as me."

Shana bit back a laugh. "He's doomed. And I'll probably have to expect one for my birthday soon enough."

"Oh to be sure. She said something about hand dying pink lace." She snorted softly. "Really, at this rate, the two of us should either just swap the man we live with, or maybe all four of us live together. I'd really rather the latter, actually. I miss that, from when we were little. We'll have different room sharing to be sure but I just want us all to be together in the same house again."

Shana looped her arms around her knees as she watched a dramatic battle with weapons happen on the film. Byron had real skill on top of his stage ones, so she had to admire that, too. "Maybe someday soon. There might be a place. Edgar and I know about it, but it's . . . out of our reach for the time being."

Siobhan studied her. "Does this have anything to do with your trusts, and your degrees, and your not-common surname, and the fact that I heard Mom tell Edgar that she would be giving him something she's been holding on his birthday this year—you know, when he's a legal adult—and Clara earlier said something about looking forward to, and I quote, 'getting her hands dirty again'?"

"Maybe."

Sensing she would not get anything else, Siobhan hugged Shana tight. "Okay. Fine. I won't press for anymore answers unless I feel that neither of you can do whatever it is you intend to do alone."

Rocky plopped down next to them and told his sister, "Time to share."

"No, I have dibs!" She stuck her tongue out at him briefly. "Go cuddle Edgar if you need a battery."

"I did. We just decided it was time to swap."

Shana just shook her head. She had missed this far too much while she had been in Axium. It made her question her sanity, but at least she couldn't deny she never lacked for feeling loved.


* * * * *


The Ephemeral Plane had not yet regained balance. It had suffered too greatly across the two wars against Nemesis, and Pallas had only begun to see signs of majik returning within the last thirty years. Strong majik, to be sure, but not yet nearly enough. He knew his prince and queen had regained their full skill and memory, and knew that his queen could help restore the balance as only a Ruler Cultivator of Protea could, but he had not been able to reach out to them yet. He had honestly been afraid to try for fear of making things worse. They likely didn't even know how bad things had gotten; Clara was the only one who did, but there was nothing she could do personally as her domain lay within the Hall.

Pallas felt the land move under his feet and turned his green eyes toward the distance where he could see swirls of light and dark violently crashing against each other in a way that created sparks. That did not bode well at all. His hand tightened on the long broom that served as mark of his position, and magic moved around the crystal sphere embedded at the end. He had to try to reach his Rulers.

The Plane depended on it.


* * * * *


Shana's sleep had become less fearful to her thanks to defeating Nemesis. Nightmares still came with more frequency than the average person, but not every night. Not all the time. Even without her lover to hold her, she did not have to dread closing her eyes. Perhaps unusually, if she did not have nightmares then she rarely had dreams at all. Their frequency had tapered off significantly without Pallas specifically sending them to her as his role as Archon and hers as Ruler dictated. That hadn't happened in over five thousand years.

Things changed shortly after Siobhan's birthday. Shana had been contently sleeping alone in her bed when she suddenly heard a whisper across her unconscious mind. No words could be determined, but she heard a familiar voice regardless. A flash of scenery came with it. Familiar scenery, though more ravaged than she remembered.

Help us.

Her eyes flew wide and broke the dream as she went from sleep to waking in an instant. She carefully sat up in bed and shoved at her hair as it fell in her face. When she could see, she slid out of bed and walked over to open her door fully. She stepped into the hall just as her brother's door opened across from her. He looked as groggy as she felt.

The siblings turned as one and headed for the kitchen to make some hot tea. Only after they both had cups did Edgar finally say, "That was unexpected."

"A bit." Shana stared down into her cup and watched leaves float. "But maybe not. We knew things would be bad. It was inevitable after us not being there, and everything lately with Famine and my fight, especially the latter."

"Mmm." Edgar slowly stirred his tea. "It's been too long since we visited, I guess."

"Well, death will do that to you."

As was their way, neither Shana nor Edgar mentioned the dream they had received or the possible meanings of it. They just did not feel as if it was worth bothering the others until Pallas actually could contact them wholly and tell them exactly what he needed from them. That did not mean it didn't bother either sibling, however, and their sudden excessive quiet and propensity to be thinking to themselves more than usual sent up red flags in both Siobhan and Rocky alike.

Rocky tried tentatively asking Shana and then Edgar but only got diverted. Siobhan tried bribery of both equally and still did not get a direct answer. A few days ticked by with no progress, and after the third night of both Chivantis unusually turning down the offer for a sleepover, Rocky and Siobhan alike had reached the edge of their patience. Their loved ones would share and tell or else.

Shana genuinely had no idea of the coup about to happen until she left her last class for the day and hands grabbed her unceremoniously around the waist, hoisted her, and tossed her across an all-too-familiar broad shoulder. She felt no startle or surprise at the gesture because the only one she could not sense sneaking up on her was her Light lover. Her lack of sensing him meant she didn't get surprised; even she knew that to be odd.

On a sigh, she propped an elbow on his back as he calmly strode through the university past dozens of snickering and giggling students and faculty. In a way, she had expected this a bit sooner. He and his sister had shown unexpected patience. "Am I being kidnapped?"

"Correct. But don't feel bad. Edgar is too."

She blinked. "But he's . . . Siobhan is . . ." There was no way at all Siobhan would ever be able to physically manhandle or move the Protea Prince against his will, so Shana could not help but be a bit curious as to how she would pull off a kidnapping. Still, "Damn it, Rocky. You cannot carry me all the way to your apartment!"

"Watch me."

She scowled and crossed her arms as he proceeded to indeed carry her the few blocks to the apartment he shared with Siobhan. Not for the first time in her life, she felt grateful for her lack of shyness as all too often her Light companions did so love to push their luck in provoking her Dark temperament.

He walked into the apartment, and she blinked at seeing her brother sitting on the couch. He had been trussed up with what looked like bands of Illusion magic. He looked at her in turn and said politely, "Did you know that Illusion magic under the Defender category can effectively make someone fly by imitating weightlessness?"

She felt an absurd urge to laugh rising. "I did not! Do tell more."

"Someone of particular magical skill could just, you know, truss another person up and tow them along through the air like a living balloon. It might actually be fun if the balloon in question had had warning their feet would leave the ground."

Shana dropped her arms and head alike as laughter welled up against her control. "Of all the things. Damn it, Rocky Toulume, put me down!" She found herself put lightly on her feet and walked over to plop down next to Edgar. A flick of Dark magic from her fingers absorbed the Illusion magic holding him; lucky for Siobhan, Edgar's lack of using Dark despite technically possessing it meant that for all his own unexpected magical skills, he could not absorb magic cast on him.

Siobhan had been sitting on the bean bag, and she hopped to her feet to plant her hands on her hips as she aligned herself beside Rocky. "You are almost more trouble than you're worth!" she scolded. "We're your family, and we're your soul mates! How many times have we told you to just share your burdens with us? Something is bugging you, and we're not budging until we find out what it is!"

"So maybe we can't help," Rocky added firmly, "but we can listen and we can let you vent and we can tag along behind you with moral support and sparklers to help make you feel better!" He huffed out a breath. "Also, we're lonely. But it's your fault that we're addicted to you, though, so no apology there."

Shana and Edgar exchanged a look and then both started laughing. "Eternal optimists," Edgar said fondly.

"Someone has to do it!" Siobhan leaned over and gave him a smacking kiss.

"Alright," Shana sighed. "We'll explain what we can but better we tell everyone at once. In a way, it affects all Cultivators and not just the Protea Royal House. I'll call my three and you call your four. Clara can skip this conversation for now since not only is she aware of why it will happen, but she may not necessarily be needed at the moment."

It did not take long to have the other seven Defenders assemble at the apartment. All had noticed something off about the two Proteans, but even Alexandria had been willing to bide her time a little bit more. As she walked into the apartment, she told Rocky, "You saved me the effort of a kidnapping personally."

Shana scowled at her. "I wouldn't let you get away with what he pulled. I love you equally, but I only tolerate certain behaviors from certain people!"

"Like letting me boss you around but no one else." Virginia tugged on her hair as she sat beside her on the couch. "Under duress, maybe, but you do allow it." She settled back and crossed her arms. A hint of a look in her gold eyes heavily implied that perhaps a third kidnapping may have been in the works. "So what's been going on?"

Shana stretched out her legs and studied her sneakers. "The Ephemeral Plane. What all do any of you know about it?"

Yvonne frowned thoughtfully. "Honestly, not much. We never used it, or accessed it, and it never really came up as a necessary sort of knowledge. I mean, we know Clara lives there in the Hall of Records, and that there's another space called the Immortal Fields—I remember Liena talking about that one—and we know that the worst of all existences become trapped in the Underbelly of the plane. That's where Famine and—and Him broke free from. I think everyone knew about the Plane back in the time of the kingdoms, but no one really knew anything about it, so to speak. It is connected to the Protea Kingdom, I think."

"All of that is correct," Edgar said. "To clarify, the Ephemeral Plane is sort of the slough of the physical realm to hold that which isn't capable of being on our plane, and it plays a critical role to existence because it is where all the memories—in the Hall of Records—and dreams—in the Immortal Fields—are housed. Clara is in charge of the Hall, of course. The Archon known as Pallas is in charge of the Fields. However . . . the Fields need more than just an Archon. They need a Protea Ruler Cultivator."

Shana nodded. "The Plane as a whole relies on the Dark and Light of Protea and Delphinium as much as the rest of our universe, but especially the Fields are dependent on Protea in particular because we provide the power of Nature. So, back at the beginning, our ancestor Shanta become the Ruler of the Plane to help Pallas keep balance. Every Ruler Cultivator of Protea since has been equally the Ruler of the Plane."

Desiree cocked her head. Even she and the other two Defenders of the Protea House had not known these details. "So . . . how did having two Activated Rulers of Protea affect the Plane and Fields in our generation?"

"Positively!" Edgar held up a finger. "The duties split between Shanae and I. We co-rule meaning we have to make any decisions together, but the other aspect of being Ruler is split between us. I defend the Plane, which means it is my particular Nature magic that provides the intensive shields that keep just anyone from entering the Plane anywhere they like. The only people who can walk the Fields without expressly getting permission from me are witches of the Faith. Their majik ability to even enter is basically a tacit agreement with Destiny herself to serve as gatekeepers themselves. On the other hand, appropriately, Shana fights for the Plane, which means it is her particular Nature power that allows the Plane to continue the cycle of growth and death, and she alone can help maintain the balance of the Fields specifically."

Siobhan turned that over and then said softly, "No wonder you were fit to fight him."

Something pained flashed through Shana's eyes before she banished it. "Yeah. But that doesn't mean Edgar isn't fairly embroiled in the Fields personally. We could swap roles should it ever be needed. And, for the record, yeah that's why you and Rocky all too often will share our dreams when we have them. That is a byproduct of being our lover soul mates." She rubbed her hands over her arms. "Anyway, the Plane is in bad shape right now, particularly the Fields. For one thing, it hasn't had a Protea Ruler Cultivator in five thousand years. For another, remember me mentioning those of the Faith? Turns out the Plane is almost as dependent on them as on Protea! Ever since they went into hiding and stopped practicing so openly, the Plane has suffered from that too."

"I was wondering about that," Juliet mused. "If the fact that I have literally never met anyone of the Faith in this life, and that it isn't even talked about by most people, would have some sort of impact in a way we didn't see. They have incredible gifts, needed ones for us Cultivators as Liena proved, so it just felt . . . odd they might have disappeared."

"Can you find them?" Alexandria asked curiously.

"We could if we looked through Protea, but there's something that needs to happen before we make an attempt to restore the Faith." Shana waved it off literally with one hand. "Right now, it's most important to get Edgar and I back to the Plane so we can restore the balance and help everything stabilize. Pallas is struggling terribly to do it by himself, but he honestly can't. His role is to watch and oversee and report to Edgar and me any changes we need to address. He's trying to contact us, but, again, imbalance. He's a Nature element too, so he's sort of reliant on us as well."

"Can't we just go there?" Sherry shook her head. "I would assume you two can just enter at will, and we can go with you to help if possible."

"Well, yes, under normal circumstances. We're not kidding about this imbalance thing screwing up everything." Edgar shrugged. "We could normally just open up a transport right here and through we go, but we really don't dare because there's no knowing whether or not the Plane can actually support that. Instead, we can use one of the few places on Protea where there is a physical connection point."

"So where are they?" Rocky asked.

"Good damned question," Shana muttered. "It's been five thousand years. No knowing where they moved."

Sherry slowly lifted a brow. "But I could find them via some divination related to my Sight. Is that what you were going to say next?"

"Maybe?"

Virginia barely stifled a sigh that Alexandria echoed. "So," the former said pointedly, "then you did know we needed to be told because you actually do need our help—or at least Sherry's—in order to get back to the Plane. You might have the strongest Sight here, and be the only one besides Clara with All Sight, but you can't use divination because you never learned how."

Divination could be learned by anyone with any form of Sight, but what could be learned or obtained by the deliberate application of Sight directly related to the form of Sight possessed by someone. Present Sight limited to current events, for example. Shana with All Sight could conceivably divine information from just about any time period, but she had never bothered to learn how to use the skill since she so rarely had need—and in the past she had had access to three different people possessing the skill personally: Liena, Asheria, and Jayden.

Of the three, Sherry had always had a particularly potent Sight of her own and though limited to Future, she skirted very close to having Present as well; her future visions could be anywhere from years to hours to even minutes from happening. That meant her particular gift for divination could find objects in all but current time, as long as they were stationary.

Shana merely glared at Virginia. "If Pallas can contact Edgar and me in order to tell us what exactly he needs and if the Plane can support transport, then notifying you lot would have been merely a footnote because we could go there, fix things, and come back."

"You really think it'll be that easy?" Alexandria retorted.

"Rocky wants me to be more positive, and I'm trying. I can't please you people, sheesh."

Muttered Rocky, "There's a difference!"

She ignored him a bit pointedly. "Let's find a portal we can use. It's basically a place where physicality and metaphysicality connect. Usually we find it in a piece of glass since Glass has a propensity to show reflections, and only reflections can offer a glimpse of things not really there."

"Sherry isn't enough to go along with you. I, Alexandria, and Kellie will go along as well. Siobhan, too, for extra magic."

Shana glared at Virginia for several moments and was met by an equal glare. Desiree, ever the pacifist, calmly walked over and caught Shana's face to make her look down at the shorter Defender. "Shana," she said with utter calm, "it's not worth your effort to fight this fight. If it's really no big deal like you think, then why is there an issue with others going along to observe? Think of it as an outing with everyone. You enjoy those." She poked Shana in the nose. "Maybe we did wait too long to let you wear your Mask. You've gotten too self-sufficient."

Shana sighed and relented. "Okay, fine."

"Water elements," Juliet intoned. "Capable of taming even the untamable Nature!" She grinned at Alexandria. "Makes me wonder why Air ended up being the twin soul to the Apex of Dark, she who is the best and worst of both Nature and Dark alike!"

Alexandria grinned. "Because there's literally nowhere she can hide that I can't find her—which has saved not just my sanity but also Gin's more than once!" In a mutter, she added, "I count my blessings she's Nature and Dark and not Dark and Light. That would be a terrifying combination." She thought about it and then decided, "But potentially entertaining, to be sure."

"Is there such a thing as a pessimistic optimist?" Siobhan wondered. "That'd be someone thinking things will always work out but probably be terrible along the way, I think." She giggled. "Okay, that does sound funny."

Sherry snorted. "I'll hope that person is a Defender, not a High Ruler, thanks!" She nodded firmly. "Alright, let's see what I can do to find one of these portals." She sat down on the floor from where she had been leaning against the kitchen counter and closed her eyes as she held out her hands, palms up, before her.

A few moments ticked by and then her eyes opened swiftly. Her yellow irises had completely consumed her pupils. "A broken bottle," she said, almost monotonous. "A piece still sits near a shop corner. When someone kicks it tomorrow, it will shatter entirely and something will come out." She took a little breath as her eyes went back to normal. A scowl darkened her face. "Yeah, you're not going alone. That was not a pretty 'something.'"

"That doesn't bode well," Kellie muttered. "A portal to the Ephemeral Plane is going to spit out something potentially evil?"

Edgar shrugged one shoulder. "Considering the state of the Plane and everything lately with the Redemption Wars," the moniker applied equally to both fights and avoided naming Nemesis for Shana's sake, "it doesn't seem so surprising that lingering or festering evil may exist."

Shana coughed as more than one pair of eyes glared at her and her brother. "So let's go then and get this over with."

"The boys stay here." Virginia's voice booked no argument. "No, I don't care if Edgar is Protean and Rocky can push the Apex of Dark. Until I know exactly what we're walking into, those without armor are not allowed."

"Sometimes I wish we weren't Ruler Cultivators," Rocky complained at Edgar.

"Well, you are," Siobhan shot at him, "and there's probably a reason for it, but until then, Ginny's word is law. I mean, you could probably petition to Shana and see if she can override Ginny as the stronger Defender but I see this as being something they would totally agree on. I think she and I equally won't forget seeing you two smack into a wall without armor and be completely defenseless!" She went up on her toes to kiss Edgar's cheek to take the sting out of her words and then whispered, "When we find the Commanders. It'll be okay then. Gin won't be as afraid for you. Max and the others multi-tasked really well. They can directly protect you and Rocky and also step in to act as Caretakers personally."

A little pang of pain and loneliness went through Edgar's heart that he stamped down fiercely. There would be time enough for everything. He did at least know the Commanders lived on Protea somewhere. He had not actively gone searching yet simply because the time had not felt right. He and Rocky alike had agreed to exercise patience until Shana's sense for the future said it was needed. She knew something would clue them in, so they waited. "Alright," he conceded. He looked at his sister. "I'll wait here for you to bring the portal back so we can go together."

She smiled. "That's fair." She snorted. "Sorry that when Ginny and I do agree, it happens to be about you two staying safe! Whoop!" She hastily grabbed Rocky for balance as he yanked her off her feet into his arms. Before she could blink, he had kissed her with an edge that sent her senses spinning. When he released her, she barely noticed their laughing friends. "What was that for? Are you trying to distract me?"

"No, I was sharing my strength with you, as I can as your Caretaker." He grinned. "Which, yeah, I could do without touching you, but this seemed far more enjoyable."

Alexandria fought back laughter as she grabbed Shana's arm. "Enough of that." She pulled Shana over to where the other four Defenders had gathered closer together. It only amused her more that Shana did not resist; if she had, Alexandria could never have held her, particularly with the Delphinium Prince's own considerable strength bolstering her own. Edgar could share his surprising magical gift with Siobhan as well; standard for most Caretakers, but particularly potent here as the two men had had to work extra hard to gain their gifts.

Because she was both Ruler and Defender, Sherry could use her transport magic to take them to where she had seen the shard. As they landed, she said musingly to Shana, "As much as it really would be easier for everyone involved if Rocky and Edgar were not Activated Ruler Cultivators, I feel as if it is as much because Destiny wants something from them personally as it is that they have to be that way to support you and Siobhan.&qu